Day 6 – León to Mazarife (24.8 km)
As was the rule in most albergues, we had to leave the monastery in León by 8 am and, being a Sunday, the city was still fast asleep. I did not want to miss two important places on my way out of this city and, as they opened only later, I had time on my hands. Once again I walked around the perimeter of the cathedral and admired the very slender buttresses stabilizing the graceful columns. They looked so fragile and it is not surprising that sections of the nave had collapsed twice in the past. I hoped the roof was now supported well enough and entered the church for a last glance at the windows. Unfortunately the day was overcast, just as it had been the previous day and I had to imagine how amazing it must be to see the interior with sunlight streaming in – brightened up in a most colourful way from the rays shining through the stained glass windows. I hoped Uta would be more fortunate when she passed through here on her way to Santiago. Maybe she would be able to describe the effects of the fully illuminated church.
I then visited San Isidoro, an 11th century Basilica with the remains of St Isidoro buried beneath. I sat in the pew for a while, alone and quiet. The burial chambers of the kings of León only opened after 10am and so I strolled to San Marcos Plaza adjoining San Marcos monastery. This famous Renaissance building had originally been a pilgrims’ hostel and hospital dating from the 12th century and it was beautifully embellished when it became one of the offices of the Knights of Santiago. The sweeping staircase at the main entrance indicates the grandeur the Knights of Santiago maintained in their days.
During the 15th century it was converted into a monastery, in the 17th century, under Napoleon, it was used as a prison and during the Spanish Civil War in the 20th century it served as army barracks. Today this imposing structure is a Parador, one of Spain’s most impressive and expensive state-run hotels. A cloister, surrounded by Renaissance arches on both the ground and first floors, is situated on one side of the Parador and the ground floor arches facing the hotel are glassed in so that the guests of the Parador are able to look into the cloister with its beautiful garden.
A very tired-looking pilgrim with his sandals lying next to him and his satchel nearby sits on stone steps opposite the entrance to the church of St Marcos. He is one of very many statues to be found along the entire Camino and demonstrates the importance of the pilgrimage route in the past as well as today. Thousands of scallop shells adorning many buildings along the way to Santiago bear further testimony and in this historic square they were particularly evident, with hundreds moulded onto the façade of San Marcos Cathedral. I went back to St. Isidoro to find the Pantheon Real, the burial chamber of many kings reigning from the 10th century over the Kingdom of León. Similarly the Camino pilgrimage started in earnest at this time. A priest directed me to the Pantheon; he radiated a remarkable sense of peace and tranquillity, bordering on an earthly holiness. The purity and benevolence that he imparted – both physically and spiritually – made quite an impression on me.
The burial chamber contains the remains of 11 Kings, 12 Queens and 23 Princes – the high nobility of the Kingdom of León. Several of these had been instrumental in changing Spanish history: King Ramiro II (931 – 951) defeated the Muslim armies in northern Spain and Alfonso IX (1171 – 1230) re-conquered Extremadura. He also founded one of the first universities of Europe in Salamanca and established a parliament with representation by the citizens. He might have been influenced by Islam which, especially under Muhammad in the seventh century, practiced all-inclusiveness of ideas and consultation in communities.
Dating from the eleventh century, the burial chamber has many Romanesque arches with vaulted ceilings, all painted in fresco with themes from the Old and New Testaments. The Last Supper appears prominently above an arch and three evangelists are depicted with animal heads – Mark the Lion, Luke the Bull and John the Eagle, with Matthew as a winged man and Christ preaching to all of them. There are many other fresco scenes in the chamber, of which a twelve month calendar interested me most. It shows agricultural activities such as tilling, sowing, growing, harvesting and watering. In those days, agriculture was the only way of sustenance and life with all its activities revolved around nature and the four seasons. It is consequently not surprising to find a calendar where the months of the year are represented through appropriate activities, such as:
September the harvesting of grapes and most other products
November the slaughtering of pigs ‒ during the cold season when meat can be stored with greater success.
March the pruning of vines and trees
April the spring season for planting
May the season for travelling – or walking the Camino – at a time when crops grow and need little attention
And so the list continues.
Since the Middle Ages, at a time when literacy was reserved for a few and predominantly practiced by the clergy and monks, the Gospel was revealed in pictures which often formed the backdrop to sanctuaries in churches and in other sacred places. Paintings were generally elaborately framed and in Spain they are frequently arranged as an impressive backdrop to an altar. With the help of these pictures church goers were able to follow the events in the life of Christ as described in the Bible and preached by the clergy. In this way, the illiterate church members were taught the Christian narrative and were reminded of their duties to the church. The frescoes in the burial chambers at St Isidoro in Leon served a similar purpose. On leaving, I heard the organ playing in the cathedral of St Isidoro and entered the ancient Basilica. The final tune rang out and the priest that had earlier directed me to the pantheon carried the Sacraments into the sacristy. I stayed for a while longer and finally traced my way back to the Monastery of St Marcos, where I visited the museum exhibiting pictures by Leónese painters.
One large picture caught my attention. It portrays the Knights of Santiago receiving a bull – the written confirmation from Pope Alexander III granting the Knights permission to regulate and protect the pilgrims on their way to Santiago. The bull was signed on the 5th June, 1175, and was probably given in recognition of the services the Knights of Santiago had provided during the crusades and the wars against the Moorish forces during the re-conquest of the northern regions of Spain. It shows the Knights of Santiago in their white tunics with red, sword-shaped crosses embroidered on the chest. This same sword-like cross is also printed onto the scallop shells and water calabashes that pilgrims carry nowadays. The tunics of the Knights Templar were very similar in style, except that their emblem was a plain cross.
When I finally continued my walk after midday and realized that my planned destination was still twenty kilometres away, I had to change plans and find an earlier bed for the night. There were no other pilgrims in sight – they had all passed me long ago – but I was glad that I had taken the time to visit these places.
I have a confession to make and hope that Anna, if I ever see her again, will forgive me: a few hundred meters past St Marcos I hailed a taxi in order to avoid walking the boring stretch through the industrial areas out of León. This left me with a manageable fourteen kilometre walk to my originally planned destination. It led through deserted countryside with two small villages and I only came across two cars and a young couple sitting on a bench in Chozas de Abajo. I really enjoyed the walk and despite the heat of the day and my swollen ankle giving me some discomfort, I felt good.
I should mention the importance of creating a walking rhythm. Rhythm through music is very beneficial, a great “pick-me-up” and motivator. No wonder that military armies had made use of this for centuries. I marched humming all sorts of melodies in my head including the British anthem – the German anthem is not suitable for rhythmic movements. I tried many other songs and compositions of which I knew neither the titles nor the words and also made up my own tunes. Melodies would start, persist for a while, and then fade away leaving a blank or a void in my mind. On noticing this fading away, often accompanied by body slackness, I picked up my sticks and boots again, raised the tempo and body swing with the onset of a new song in my head, only to find that after a while these melodies also disappeared. One’s rhythm fluctuates markedly when one becomes hot and tired. I finally reached the village called Vilar de Mazarife, where I had a choice of three albergues. For the last hour or two there were signs promoting Tio Pepe’s hostel. He also owned the local bar. The advertisements gave me the impression that Pepe was the most influential businessman in this hamlet and I was not sure I wanted to support him.
As I entered Vilar de Mazarife, the first albergue I passed was a contemporary looking face-brick bungalow, not very inspiring, and I carried on towards El Refugio de Jesus, which was visible on the left at the far end of a field and was marked with large brightly coloured letters.
The building, with some resemblance of a dignified villa of the past, had an entrance hall with two rooms on either side, followed by a courtyard with bathrooms, toilets, a kitchen at ground level and sleeping quarters on the first floor. There was a balcony on three sides of the first floor, or rather a deep gallery with mattresses laid out. Quite a few were occupied by pilgrims, so this was obviously a popular spot.
I selected the first bedroom at the entrance, which I had to myself for the night. The only light was a bare globe hanging from a high ceiling in the centre.
This albergue was a hippy but pleasant place, with wise and less wise verses and drawings decorating my bedroom walls, some a bit shabby, some providing rather deeper thoughts, but all generally well-meant and not sleazy. The father of the refugio was very kind and accommodating, he complemented his surroundings well.
A group of girls invited me and others to share their dinner of noodles and vegetables. Our party consisted of various nationalities – from Poland, Germany, New Zealand, Italy, Walter from a small Canary Island and Audrey from America, the only American I met on this journey. We had a wonderful dinner with animated talking and exchanging of experiences – everybody was excited and happy. Some, like Walter, had walked sections of the Camino before; they were seasoned pilgrims who gave us ‘rookies’ good advice.
After dinner I explored the village, passing by a remarkable church with one side of the roof sloping almost to ground level. Unfortunately it was closed, as most churches on the way are these days, it appears that humans have become less trustworthy.
The buildings in the village are double-storied and painted white, which is quite unusual, they were built in a style I had not seen before. The atmosphere was lonesome, probably caused by the empty streets – the absence of traffic and people.
The first three or four days on the way had been more problematic than I had anticipated. While walking, my legs cooperated well, but after a rest they became stiff and rigid and needed a great deal of persuasion to continue. On arrival at an albergue after walking around 25 km, the legs ceased to cooperate, and any attempt to explore the village or go shopping was most painful. I must have looked like an old man in Bercianos Real Camino, swaying from side to side and hardly able to get up from a chair. That was after the third day – the worst I had experienced. After that my body and especially my legs adapted to the routine and I felt stronger and stronger.
I was not the only one with painful legs. Most pilgrims initially go through this experience, some with more discomfort and some with less. After such a day, continuing the walk the next morning is challenging. It takes a few kilometres to loosen one’s muscles, pick up speed and eventually enjoy the walk once more.
My previous night’s albergue was in León, where I slept in a monastery with roughly 80 beds in one room (all men). It was fascinating to hear so many males breathing, snoring, coughing, wheezing, letting off gas and steam and creating disturbing sounds when turning over in squeaking beds. Two pilgrims sleeping close to me had a snoring contest, but I was tired enough and in my state the noise just faded away. In fact it almost created an accompaniment similar to a lullaby.
As so often the ablution facilities were limited. There were only two toilets and two basins for our large bedroom as well as for all male pilgrims sleeping in the mixed-sex and even larger dormitory next door. Consequently I performed my ablutions early the next morning, and went back to bed for a further snooze.
I then awoke with a rather unpleasant surprise. My bed had obviously not been monastically clean: I had bites on my legs, arms, face, neck and back – the wish “Good night, good night, don’t let the bedbugs bite” did not help. I washed my bed linen, which is a 4.5 m long and 1.2 m wide sheet with a cushion tunnel sewn in at one end. I left it to drip until I had to leave the albergue and as businesses were closed on Sundays, I had no access to a pharmacy in Leon and the villages were too small during the next few days. If the bites persisted, I would have to disinfect all my clothes and bedding and wash everything in hot water – a challenging task on the Camino!
To explain the structure of my unusual bed linen: on arrival, I spread the bed linen over the mattress, tucking in the sides as best possible. This takes up about two meters of the cloth, leaving the remaining two and a half meters to be folded back to the head end under a blanket. The reason for this elaborate system is that I experience claustrophobia in a sleeping bag and have the habit to regulate my body temperature by exposing bare legs and feet through the open sides of the envelope. I am generally feeling rather too warm and with this arrangement I have some form of control over heat build-up. However, when handling a bug-invaded cloth of this size, especially when still wet, it becomes a challenge and adds weight to the backpack.